What is Shochu exactly? Shochu (pronounced “show-chew”) is a Japanese distilled spirit with alcohol by volume of no more than 45% and made from a variety of ingredients, but commonly rice, sweet potato, barley, or “black sugar.” That’s the simple, legal definition of shochu, but it doesn’t do it justice.
Shochu is much more complex and beautiful than the Japanese tax law definition. But it requires a full Wikipedia entry to really get into it. Interestingly, it’s easier to define shochu by saying what it’s not.
Shochu is not Japanese vodka.
Shochu’s defining characteristic is that it uses koji mold in the fermentation process. Whiskies, vodkas, and other distilled spirits do not. Koji is the same stuff that’s used to make soy sauce and miso (so you know it’s not gross to use mold in food production). The koji converts the grains into sugars during the fermentation process and also profoundly impacts the flavor profile. In fact, it would be accurate to say that the art of making shochu depends heavily on making good koji.
Shochu is also single-distilled, whereas vodka is multi-distilled, which drives up the alcohol content and strips away characteristic flavors. To be transparent, there are mass-produced, multi-distilled shochus (known as korui), but for the intent of this article, we’ll focus on what’s known as honkaku, or “genuine,” shochu which is single-distilled, like Nankai Shochu.
Also, shochu is generally 24-25% ABV, which is weaker than vodka or whisky and stronger than wine or sake. The upside is that vodka has 60 calories per ounce while shochu only has 15-20 calories.
Shochu is not sake.
In the United States, sake is the most well-known Japanese alcohol import and is synonymous with sushi food pairings. Rice and koji also make up sake’s main ingredients. So, it’s no surprise then that many people mistake shochu for stronger sake. However, sake is brewed while shochu is distilled, which means sake has carbohydrates while shochu does not.
In Japan, shochu outsells sake by almost double the volume. There are many reasons for this. For example, many consider shochu to be healthier, thanks to lower carbs and calories and its well-publicized medical benefits. The benefits include helping to prevent heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. In addition, shochu also functions more versatilely, pairing well with most styles of cuisine as well as serving as a strong cocktail base.
So, what is Shochu?
The beauty of shochu led to why we started Nankai. You can’t argue why shochu is Japan’s national spirit. Single-distilled and handcrafted by artisans, shochu is as complex as whisky, as versatile in cocktails as vodka, and as food-friendly as wine. When you consider that shochu does not have carbs/sugars and is lower in calories per serving than other alcohol, the answer is clear to, “What is shochu?” If you drink, it’s what you should be drinking.